Punching out of work and into the ring

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

After a nine-hour early-morning shift at the Sharpe Refectory, Dining Services worker Maurice Cole walks home having earned a rest. But rather than relax, Cole heads to Manfredo’s Gym in Pawtucket, where he spars, shadowboxes and hits punching bags for more than three hours each night.

With only sixteen fights under his belt, Cole, a 24-year-old amateur boxer, is hoping to turn professional in the coming months. If he does, it will be just one more step in a meteoric climb to the top.

“I can work with somebody for two or three days and tell whether they’re going to be a boxer or not,” said Cole’s trainer, Orlando Valles. When the two first met, Cole had no experience with the sport, but Valles saw potential in the young man. “I could tell that he had the ability to be a good boxer,” Valles said. “He had the right strengths.”

At the time, Cole was dating Valles’ daughter, also a boxer, and one day accompanied her to the gym. “He didn’t want to box,” recalled Valles, “but I got him in just for the heck of it. … That’s how I noticed he had some skill. He didn’t know it himself.”

Cole began to train every day, often putting in three or four hours at Valles’ gym after daytime shifts at the CVS store on Hope Street and a Japanese restaurant on the East Side. After ten months of practice, Valles entered Cole in his first amateur fight, against a more experienced boxer.

Cole knocked him out in the second round.

In the four years since, Cole has won the Southern New England Golden Gloves Tournament, the Brockton, Mass.-based Rocky Marciano Tournament and the regional U.S. Opens.

Cole is used to being the underdog. In 2007, he fought in the Golden Gloves against Jason Ellis, a Portland, Ore.-based boxer with almost 200 fights behind him. A thrilling first round had the crowd going wild, but the second didn’t last long – Cole won with a knockout.

The six-foot, 195-pound heavyweight combines the speed of a much lighter boxer with a strength befitting his class. But he also fights with his head. “Maurice is a classy fighter,” Valles said. “He’s a thinker. … He knows how to pull punches.” His only flaw, Valles said, is a lack of aggression. Many boxers “are like street fighters – they got a mean streak in them and they think they’re tough,” Valles added. “Maurice never had a street fight in his life.” Valles respects Cole for it. “I just wish he’d get a little more mean when he enters the ring.”

Cole’s close friend and fellow Dining Services worker Pamela Andrews doesn’t expect to see that happen anytime soon. “He’s a sweetheart,” said Andrews, who has served students and faculty in the Ivy Room for more than 20 years. “Very well-mannered. He’s an excellent role model … just one of those young people that you don’t see too often.”

Cole ended up in East Providence in 2002 after graduating from Putnam Vocational Technical High School in Springfield, Mass. He arrived with his step-sister, who came to Rhode Island seeking her father, whom she’d never met. Cole was 17.

Andrews met Maurice a year later, after her son Justin befriended him. “From him being around the neighborhood we got close to him,” she said, “and I just adopted him like a son.” Cole was unhappy with his work at the time, and Andrews suggested he apply to work at Brown.

Justin Andrews has been to two of Cole’s fights. “The first time, I was nervous – I was like, ‘Damn, I don’t want my boy to lose. I wonder how he’s going to do,'” he said. “And he won. He whupped the dude.”

Cole said some of his colleagues know about his boxing, and several times he’s brought his trophies to work. Now they want to see him fight. And they may get their chance later this week, when Cole competes for his fourth Golden Gloves title Feb. 1 in Fall River, Mass.

After that, said Valles, he’ll be focused on the national title. Cole won a regional tournament last year and had the chance to compete in Tennessee for a spot on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, but Valles decided he wasn’t ready. He would have been up against far more experienced boxers, Valles said, “and even though he fought his way there and won, I didn’t think he was ready.”

If Cole places first, second or third at this year’s competition, he’ll have reached the top tier of amateur boxing and will be able to compete internationally. Since many boxers continue fighting into their 30s, Cole has some time to make his mark.

If he does go pro, Cole said, he’ll have a shot at televised fights and good money. Valles added that the rules of professional boxing better suit Maurice’s natural abilities, while amateur fighting rewards technique over damage and knockouts.

Cole “is a guy that can let you do whatever you want for one or two rounds, and then he can knock you out in the third. In the amateurs, you can’t do that, because it’s all about points.” In pro boxing, scoring favors strategic boxers like Cole.

For now, though, the pair is focused firmly on the present. “We’re gonna go. We’re gonna train. We’re gonna beat whoever it is that we have to fight, and see how well we can do,” Valles said. “People that watch Maurice say he has the ability to be a champion.”

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